Christmas 1864 found Confederate soldiers with little to celebrate. The war that so many had said would last just 90 days now reached it fourth winter with a gloomy outlook for their cause. But still, stories of brief holiday moments are sprinkled throughout their primary sources and embellished memoirs. A reminder that no matter how troubled a circumstance, there can be Christmas and holiday cheer if one chooses to find it.
Here’s Confederate General John B. Gordon’s reminiscences of Christmas 1864 and how a little splash of coffee made all the difference for the holiday at headquarters.
Christmas (December 25, 1864) came while we were fighting famine within and Grant without our lines. To meet either was a serious problem. The Southern people from their earliest history had observed Christmas as the great holiday season of the year. It was the time of times, the longed-for period of universal and innocent but almost boundless jollification among young and old. In towns and on the plantations, purse-strings were loosened and restraints relaxed….
The holiday, however, on Hatcher’s Run, near Petersburg, was joyless enough for the most misanthropic. The one worn-out railroad running to the far South could not bring to us half enough, necessary supplies; and even if it could have transported Christmas boxes of good things, the people at home were too depleted to send them. They had already impoverished themselves to help their struggling Government, and large areas of our territory had been made desolate by the ravages of marching armies. The brave fellows at the front, however, knew that their friends at home would gladly send them the last pound of sugar in the pantry, and the last turkey or chicken from the barnyard. So they facetiously wished each other “Merry Christmas!” as they dined on their wretched fare. There was no complaining, no repining, for they know their exhausted country was doing all it could for them.
At my headquarters on that Christmas day there was unusual merrymaking. Mrs. Gordon, on leaving home four years before, had placed in her little army-trunk a small package of excellent coffee, and had used it only on very special occasions–“to celebrate,” as she said, “our victories in the first years, and to sustain us in defeat at the last.” When I asked her, on the morning of December 25, 1864, what we could do for a Christmas celebration, she replied, “I can give you some of that coffee which I brought from home.” She could scarcely have made an announcement more grateful to a hungry Confederate. Coffee–genuine coffee! The aroma of it filled my official family with epicurean enthusiasm before a cup was passed from the boiling pot. If every man of us was not intoxicated by that indulgence after long and enforced abstinence, the hilarity of the party was misleading.
Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (Electronic Edition) Accessed at: https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/gordon/gordon.html (Pages 378-379)